can't tell you exactly when, but sometime during the night, I turned
into Adolf Hitler.
My first clue came a little after
seven o'clock, when my wife leapt out of bed and started screaming.
"Get out of here!"
Kate shouted and then "Harry! Get in here!" as if I was
in the kitchen or something and not lying there, blinking away the
few hours of sleep that I did get, wondering why my wife
was bouncing around the room like a wild cat and screaming for me
to get out and come here all at the same time.
"Punkin," I said.
"What the hell is wrong? I'm right here."
I don't know if that registered
or if she just ran out of air but there was a brief moment where
we stared at each other like a black-and-white still from an old
film noir. Either way, the moment passed, she sucked in another
lungful, and started again with the "Get out of my fucking
bed" and "Harry get your fucking ass in here". Then
she picked up her blow dryer and threw it at me.
"Okay, okay, okay,"
I said and, hands held out to fend off any newly-launched toiletries,
I got out of the fucking bed. "Kate. Honey. Sweetie-pie,"
I said, trying to cajole her as I sidled my way around toward her
side of the bed. Then I caught sight of myself in the mirror of
"Holy shit!" I said,
or words even less elegant, and bounded over the bed. Kate screamed
and grabbed her curling iron, poor dear, convinced that the madman
in her bedroom was now leaping to complete his rapacious intentions.
But carnal knowledge of my wife while being whipped with an extension
cord was not high on my list at the moment. I was on my knees in
front of her bureau, staring at my reflection, shocked beyond any
thought but: Jesus, I'm Adolf Hitler.
I looked up at Kate and, in a
plaintive voice, said, "Jesus, honey, I look like Adolf Hitler."
It wasn't eloquent, but it did
the trick and I was glad when Kate's grip on the curling iron lost
some of its hysterical strength and her features softened from feral
to merely terrified.
"Harry?" she said,
and it was music to my ears because, I'll tell you, when a man wakes
up with the face of a fascistic mass murderer, he really needs to
know that the woman he loves is on his side. Suddenly, I understood
Adolf's adoration of Eva Braun.
She sat down behind me on the
bed and we both stared at the face that had...well, you know. Gone
was my bald dome with thinning blond ruffle, replaced by a blunt-cut
mop of black hair that hung limply across my forehead. My green
eyes were steel blue, my admittedly pudgy cheeks were sallow and
thin, and, of course, there was that comical Charlie Chaplin mustache
which at the moment was definitely Not Funny. Oddly, I noticed
that my nose seemed not to have changed. It was a shock, discovering
that I had anything in common with the most reviled and hated man
of the 20th century, even if it was only the shape of my nose.
But even though my nose was Hitler's
nose, the rest of my face wasn't—or at least, hadn't been until
now. At any rate, Kate and I just stared, unable to think of what
to say. Gingerly, I lifted up a hank of limp hair. It felt real.
And when I tugged on the mustache, I found that it was definitely
attached. Kate reached forward and pulled at the flesh of my cheek,
probably hoping that the whole thing would slough off like some
mask in an old episode of Mission Impossible. She was disappointed
when it didn't. So was I. We stared at my face for a bit longer
until Kate glanced over at the clock.
"Damn, it's late. What
are we going to do about work?"
My gaze shifted from my reflection
to hers. "What?"
"Work," she said.
"What are we going to do about it?"
"You mean, are we going
to go to work?"
She shrugged. "Well, yeah."
I pointed to the man in the mirror.
"Are you serious?"
She reached forward, opened the
top bureau drawer and took out a few underthings. "Do you
No to both.
"Any pain? Blurred vision?"
"No," I said, seeing
where she was going and not wanting to follow. "Of course
I still harbor a deep regret about that whole Poland thing."
"Kate. I look
like Adolf Fucking Hitler! I am not going to
go to work."
"What do you propose to
do then?" She went into the master bathroom and, incredibly,
started to get dressed. "Do you plan to sit around here all
"Yeah, that was kind of
"And what? Hope that it's
some sort of twenty-four hour Dictator Flu?"
"That's not a bad idea either."
She leaned out of the bathroom,
pulling the dampened locks of her pixie haircut into what she thought
was a stylish do, and gave me what had been, for the past ten years
of marriage, her mantra whenever faced with a difficult decision.
"It's better to do anything
than to do nothing."
"I can't go out
"Shave the mustache. Put
on some sunglasses. Wear one of those ridiculous caps of yours.
But you won't accomplish anything just sitting around."
"What do you suggest?"
"How about going to the
"I don't feel sick. We
already established that."
"Harry," she said around
a mouthful of toothbrush and toothpaste. "You said it yourself.
You look like Adolf Fucking Hitler. Go to the doctor."
"What, like a plastic surgeon?"
She spat. "No," she
said. "Like a regular physician doctor. There has to be a
"I'll think about it. But
I'm not going to work."
"Call me," Kate said
as she headed out the door. I marveled at her coping mechanisms.
She'd been up for less than an hour. She had spruced, primped,
dressed, slurped down a yogurt, and now was headed off to work as
if it was any other day and she had not, in fact, woken up next
to the leader of the Nazi party. But that had always been Kate's
way. When things got tough, she powered through the crisis, handled
what had to be handled, and broke down later.
I, however, was cut from a different
bolt of cloth. For me, Change was Bad. Change was the Enemy.
Change should only come after months of notice and weeks of rigorous
preparation. It definitely should not come in a single
And so I stayed behind, barely
able to think. I hid my face behind the curtained sheers and waved
as she backed out of the driveway and headed down the street toward
work. I turned and headed for the kitchen, willing to wait this
thing out, no matter how long it took. That was when I got socked
in the stomach.
At least it felt like a sock
in the stomach. My guts wobbled and warped. I felt like I was
being pulled forward, then backward. Dark splotches passed across
my vision and my heart began to pound. I reached out to steady
myself on the countertop and felt bathed in sudden sweat. The countertop
seemed unnaturally high, and I saw that my hands—Hitler's hands,
that is—had changed. Instead of the pale, thin-fingered hands
I woke up with, they'd bloomed into the heavy hands of a workman.
As I turned them over, inspecting them like cabbages at the market.
I picked up the toaster. In
its chrome curve I saw myself, distorted in its fish-eyed reflection,
but still recognizable. The hair had shortened into a stiff black-and-grey
brush, and the mustache had expanded. The nose this time was neither
mine nor Hitler's, but instead was a bulbous proboscis flanked by
small, piggy eyes that completed the picture.
I was now Josef Stalin.
A tiny bell went off in my head,
followed by the worst thought I'd had so far that day. I looked
at the clock. It was 8:04 in the AM, and I'd just shifted from
Hitler to Stalin. I ran to the living room.
The remnants of my late-night
battle with our new remote still lay on the coffee table and at
its feet. Our old remotes—DVD player, VCR, TV, stereo receiver,
input feed switch, TiVo, Dolby SurroundSound, digital converter,
premium descrambler, satellite dish control (yes, we have both cable
and satellite and still Kate says "There's
nothing on tonight"), sub-woofer, tape deck, and CD changer—were
all piled on the right like electronic cordwood while on the left,
with a command screen like a Cyclopean green eye surrounded by a
halo of buttons, wheels, and toggles, and a handset covered by collections
of keys and switches, was the MX-2200 Ultimate Remote. I'd spent
the whole of the previous evening and a couple of the early morning
hours trying to get the MX-2200 to live up to the claims that were
still splashed across its box in bright, eye-catching colors: Smart-Eye™
technology that not only learned from other remotes but "adapted"
to changes in my multimedia componentry. Touted as "the only
remote I'd ever need," by 1:30 I'd been pretty well convinced
that I'd bought an electronic lemon. I had downloaded the macros
and command strings from the website, had synched the MX-2200 with
the Channel Manager™ via the USB port, and at the end of it all
the only thing I had was a stubby, eighteen-ounce scepter that could
do three things: turn on the TV, tune in The History Channel, and
hold open the pages of the operating manual.
But this was the little bell
in my head. While I'd been working on slash swearing at the MX-2200,
trying to get the TV to bring in something other than The
History Channel, repetitive adverts had drilled into my skull that,
starting at midnight, they were about to kick off their Dictator
Marathon. Yes, a full eighteen hours of murderous ambition and
clinical paranoia. I'd fucked around with the MX-2200 through Genghis
Khan and Attila the Hun before I finally tossed it down on the coffee
table with the other remotes and toddled off to bed.
I grabbed the TV Guide to check
my theory. After Genghis and Attila, there'd been a series of shows
on the various depravities of Roman emperors. Then, at 6:00 AM,
a two-hour special on Hitler had come on, followed by a bio of Stalin
that began at 8:00, just as I'd received my gut-punch in the kitchen.
Checking forward, I saw that I had about fifty-two minutes before
I became Napoleon. After that, I could look forward to being Idi
Amin, Saddam Hussein, Ivan the Terrible, Seti the First and, just
before teatime, Mao Tse-Tung and Pol Pot. What a treat! Then I'd
travel to Eastern Europe for a trifecta as Nicolae Ceausescu, Marshal
Tito, and wrap up the festival as Slobodan Milosevic.
The ramifications of this tried
to reach my brain but skipped off my mind like an Apollo capsule
entering at too shallow an angle. I simply could not believe
it. To be honest, my involvement was a little more active than
that. I would not believe it.
Perhaps it was all a dream.
I severely hoped so. If this was a nightmare, there was the chance
that I'd wake up (or die trying). Awake, I'd be in need of some
overnight observation, I'm sure, but I'd be me. This was
the only possibility that I allowed to even crack open the door
of my conscious mind because the only other one—that somehow my
body was "channeling" The History Channel—well, I simply
wasn't willing to go there.
But if my body looked
like what was on The History Channel...I checked the TV Guide again
and realized that waiting it out might not be my best strategy.
Carefully, I reached out for the MX-2200.
The phone rang. I nearly wet
myself. I went and picked up the phone.
"Harry?" It was Kate.
I brought the phone back into
the living room and sat down facing the MX-2200 and the empty rectangle
of the TV screen.
"Well, the good news is
that I'm not Hitler anymore."
"Oh, thank God," she
"I'm Stalin." I checked
my watch. "For another 36 minutes."
How do you explain something
like this? I did my best. I told her my theory as I picked up
the MX-2200 and turned on the set.
"So if I'm right, in about...33
minutes, I'm going to turn into...Oh, my God."
"Harry? What is it?"
The TV had come on and the picture
filled its breadth in stunning High-Definition (which, in fact,
doesn't do much when you're watching a documentary cobbled together
from 60 year-old footage in black-and-white but hey, who am I to
complain about the march of technology?) Naturally, I wasn't fazed
by the fact that there was, indeed, a biography on Josef Stalin
airing on The History Channel.
What stunned me was the fact
that, in the documentary, Josef Stalin was a tall, pudgy, balding,
middle-aged guy who had, I now knew from experience, Hitler's nose.
Josef Stalin was me.
"I'm still here," I
said. "I think."
"What is it?"
"I can't tell you."
"What? Is it something
on the television?"
I sat up and, for the first time
in our married life, gave my wife an order. "Kate. Do not
go to a television. Do not, Kate. Do not."
"Harry?" she said,
her voice registering surprise and, if I read her right, a measure
"I'm sorry, Kate. I just
don't want to know if you can see the same thing I'm seeing because,
if you can, then so can others, and I really don't want to know
that, Kate. I don't want to know it. Just let me stay ignorant,
There was silence on the other
end of the line until, "All right, honey," she said.
"I'm sorry, Kate."
"It's okay, Harry. It'll
"Yeah," I said. "I'll
call you if anything else...unusual happens."
"Okay, Harry. I love you."
That meant a lot, and I tried
to tell her so, but I got all choked up and all I could get out
was, "Me too."
The transformation into the even
shorter Napoleon Bonaparte was more than unpleasant. I wasted fifteen
minutes retching in the bathroom and spent the rest of the hour
agonized with a skull that felt like it was a size and a half too
small. When ten AM rolled in, it was a relief. My body bloated
as it darkened, approaching something near my normal height, and
I felt positively buoyant compared to the density I experienced
as the Little Corporal. I was now a sizable black man and, despite
a nasty case of flatulence, I set to work.
It seemed clear to me that the
MX-2200 was responsible for my case of musical bodies. I didn't
know how it had caused it, and I didn't care. Maybe it
was sunspots. Maybe it was cosmic rays. Maybe I was picking up
transmissions like people who receive radio signals in their fillings.
Who cared how it started? All I knew was that waiting to see what
happen would not suffice. I didn't want to see what happen and,
moreover, I didn't think I'd survive it. I had until six to turn
it all off, because at 6:00 PM the Dictator Marathon was over and
The History Channel went on to its premiere show of the evening:
a three-hour documentary on John Merrick, aka The Elephant Man.
I'd never survive.
The clock was ticking. I had
to take a page from Kate's playbook.
I started by trying to use the
other remotes, but none of them worked. All night, the MX-2200
had lain there, staring at them, and its Smart-Eye™ technology had
"adapted" the brains right out of them. New batteries?
Ha. Whacking them soundly? Nada.
After a quick costume change
from the Butcher of Angola into Saddam Hussein, I unplugged everything,
took the batteries out of the MX-2200 (yes, the backup battery,
too...do you think I was born yesterday?), and tried to re-boot
the entire system. I had to remember where the switch was so I
could actually turn the TV on manually, but when the screen flared
to life, I saw statues of me toppling all over Baghdad. It was
disconcerting; believe me, seeing people cheering at your downfall.
I tried not to take it personally.
Later, halfway through my career
as a totalitarian czar, I gave up on mechanical fixes and hit the
internet, searching for patches, FAQ sheets, and Easter egg codes
that I might use to reset the MX-2200. Then something truly frightening
happened. I turned into Seti I.
Perhaps you've never considered
this before, but while we literally have tons of statues and bas-reliefs
of Seti I, the images of him are very stylized. We have no portraits
of the man. The only real pictures we have of this rigid ruler
are of his mummified remains and thus, when the top of the hour
clicked over, I shriveled up like a Slim Jim pepperoni stick and
could do nothing but lay on the floor for an hour and listen to
my flesh crackle.
At 1:00, I plumped out like a
Chinese Butterball turkey and turned into Chairman Mao. Filled
with a renewed sense of urgency, I hit the web again. By 1:15 I
was tracking down spook sites in search of a bit of hacker code
designed to bypass the digital copyright restrictions built into
DVDs. It also had the purported ability to obviate the scrambling
of the premium channels. I probably broke several laws even thinking
about downloading it, but I didn't give a damn. I was now the ruthless
fiend responsible for the deaths of millions of Cambodians, and
time was running out. My body was about to head into a tour of
the Eastern bloc leaders before it would turned into a mass of bone
and lumps at the stroke of six.
I downloaded the code, then a
compiler. I was seriously out of my element but, hey, these guys
make it incredibly easy. If they would only get real jobs
writing operating manuals, they'd be heroes. I synched up the MX-2200
and it bleeped, which I took to be a good sign since it hadn't made
a sound since I'd taken it out of the box. Hell, I didn't even
know it made sounds. I leapt up and ran back into the
living room—not an easy task for a soft, aging Romanian—and I
tripped on the carpet.
The MX-2200 flew, tumbling across
the room like that bone the ape throws in the air in 2001: A Space
Odyssey, only this one didn't come down as a spaceship. It came
down on the edge of the coffee table, cracked open, and spilled
pieces like an electronic piñata. Machines blinked to life, LED
and LCD and plasma displays glowing with information and requests
for attention. Then the TV began to surf through its channels,
about one every five or six seconds.
And so did I.
I hurdled over the couch, grabbing
for pieces with hands that were first burly, then feminine. I grew
breasts and lost them before I had a chance to enjoy the experience.
I picked up a NiCAD battery only to drop it when I became an Old
English sheepdog and lost my opposable thumbs. I was Humphrey Bogart
and Barbara Stanwyck in alternating moments, then Al Roker and (God
help me) Emeril Lagasse. The channels began to speed by, and I
could barely stay seated, much less reassemble the broken MX-2200
from the collection of shrapnel that littered the floor. I had
blonde hair, an afro, a shiny Patrick Stewart dome. I was tall,
short, Doris Day, and Rock Hudson. I flattened out as the cartoon
networks sped by and I lay there in a kaleidoscope of day-glo colors.
I regained my 3rd dimension and managed to get some of the bits
together as the shifts came and went in split-second time. The
SurroundSound couldn't keep up, spitting out more noise than sound,
and the input feed flipped from satellite to cable to straight from
the air network feeds.
Smoke rose from the wall units
and I was helpless to stop it. The channels—and myself—were a
flickering blur of images. I cried out in my bass/tenor/soprano/male/female
voice. I howled. I raged. Sparks flew, and the smell of burning
insulation hit my snout/nostrils/nose. It all began to glow and
I lay there, dreaming of merely being The Elephant Man until, not
entirely unexpectedly, components started to blow.
Plastic shards, strips of metal,
and chunks of wood flew. Sheetrock crumpled from the force of the
blast and fell in pieces and a choking dust. The coffee table lifted
up and threw itself at me wholesale. That's the last thing I remember
for a while.
Then I heard Kate's voice. She
was calling for me, but I couldn't see anything. I hurt all over,
especially in the small of my back, but otherwise I felt relatively
sound. There was a crunching sound, and then I saw light. She
pulled the coffee table off of me. The living room was a missile
"Harry?" she said.
"Are you...are you all right?"
"Thing so. 'Saminnit."
I reached beneath my back and pulled out the thing that was stabbing
my kidney. It was the faceplate of the MX-2200. "I think
I fixed it."
She looked at me with a look
that was impossible for me to read. "Sort of," she said.
I groaned. "Who?"
"There'll be talk."
She smiled. "Look at it
this way," she said. "At least you picked the young Elvis."
She held up a compact mirror.
In it I saw the youthful face that had sung its way into the American
"We'll never be able to
watch 'Viva Las Vegas' again."
She shrugged. "Never liked